Life aboard a submarine can really suck, they’re usually super-cramped, they smell horrible, and you can go weeks, and even months without even seeing the Sun, they can be claustrophobic to the extreme and the only thing worse than living on a submarine is sinking to the bottom of the ocean in a broken one.
Let’s rewind back to the World War II and specifically the Mediterranean theater, the British Navy was fighting for control over the sea with the Italian Navy, but the often crystal clear waters were a death trap for submarines on both sides. Some were bombed from the air, others were attacked by ships with depth charges, and others just ran into mines.
There were a lot of occupational hazards and as a result two out of five British Submarines that enter the Mediterranean during the war would sink and usually whenever a submarine does sink, it becomes a mass iron coffin for all of the crew unlucky enough to be onboard. Throughout the course of the war, the British Navy lost 79 submarines and out of those there there were only four successful escapes which implies that if you went down in one, your odds of escape stood at only 5% but out of those four successful escapes, however, the most fantastic one is the lesser-known story of the HMS Perseus and the sole survivor onboard.
HMS Perseus was a submarine that was assigned to Alexandria in British Egypt, there main objective was to covertly transport supplies to the besieged island of Malta, a strategic British outpost in the center of the Mediterranean. On the 26th November, 1941 the sub left Malta back to Alexandria for more supplies with the side-quest along the way of patrolling the waters of the Southern Aegean, around the Islands of Greece. Unfortunately at 10:00 p.m. on the night of the 6th December, Perseus struck an Italian mine just off the coast of island of Kefalonia and began to sink. On board were 61 men, 59 of them being the crew members and 2 of them passengers. One of those two passengers was a man named John Capes who would somehow miraculously go on to become the sole survivor aboard the Perseus.
After the Sub struck the mine, Capes was awoken in his bunk inside of an empty torpedo tube by a loud explosion that threw him across the compartment. All of the lights went out, the sub twisted and plunged down into the dark depths of the cold sea before smashing down on the surface 170 feet beneath sea level. Capes discovered that he could still manage to stand up in the darkness and after rummaging around he luckily discovered a flashlight through the darkness and in the increasingly foul air and rising water level inside, Capes managed to find his way into the sub’s engine room after passing by the mangled corpses of at least a dozen dead along the way. However this was as far as he would go because the room on the other side of the door on the far end was already completely full of water, he began quickly searching for anybody else he could discover that was still alive and managed to find three other men who he brought together in the engine room.
They moved up towards the escape chamber and hatch right above the room where they discovered pairs of escape suits, unfortunately for them, however, these escape suits were only tested for a maximum depth of 100 feet beneath water and they only had enough oxygen for that amount of distance. Their gauges were reading that they were 270 feet beneath water but unknown to them their gauges were actually broken, they were in fact 171 feet beneath water but even still that meant that they would all have to swim that final 71 feet without any oxygen and they believed that they would have to swim for 171 feet without oxygen, nobody in history had ever done that before and so they knew that they would be breaking the world record attempt upto that point for the deepest ever escape if they succeeded.
Time and oxygen inside of the sub was running out so they had no other choice. Capes took one final swig from a bottle of Rum, flooded the escape compartment and with great difficulty managed to release the damaged bolts on the escape hatch and pushed the other three men out first before he ventured out as well. There was of course one other big problem that all the men knew they would be facing though. Swimming up rapidly to the sea surface from a depths of hundreds of feet would be a dramatic change in pressure on all of their bodies, which they knew would likely induce the bends, a state where gases inside of the body start to bubble up, this can cause enormous amounts of pain, paralysis, and even death in extreme cases but it was wither risk dying from bends or guaranteed drowning in the sub, so they all took their chances anyway.
Suddenly Capes popped up above the surface on the cold December night. He was severely suffering from the bends and the pain he was experiencing inside of his lungs was certainly enormous but his ordeal was far from being over. None of the other three men ever made it up to the surface, so he was left all alone. He did spot a set of white cliffs belonging to the Greek island of Kefalonia in the distance so he set out and began desperately swimming towards them, the shore was 5 miles away but somehow Capes actually managed to reach it because was discovered washed up on the beach and unconscious by a couple local Greek fishermen the next morning but at the time the island was occupied by the Italian army so he was forced to hide and stay underground in his rescuers home.
For the next 18 months of his life, Capes was passed from house to house on the island as he attempted to evade capture by the Italians. He lost 70 pounds of weight during this time and he even dyed his hair black to try and blend in more with the locals. Finally though, 18 months later in May 1943 after he became the sole survivor of his submarine sinking and becoming a washed-up refugee, the Royal Navy organized a rescue operation. He was smuggled away from the Kefalonia aboard a humble fishing boat and taken over to Smyrna in neutral Turkey, from there he was finally able to complete his journey to Alexandria, 18 months later than he had anticipated and for his heroism Capes was awarded the British empire medal but despite that most people doubted that his survival story was true.
Capes’ name didn’t appear on the Perseus’ crew list when it departed from Malta after all and British submarine commanders were previously ordered to bolt their escape hatches shut from the outside in order to prevent getting them blown off during a depth charge attack. There were no witnesses to back up Capes’ story, he had a reputation for being a great and natural storyteller and his account of events would change over the course of decades following the end of the war and his claim of escaping from a depth of 270 feet simply made things even harder to accept for most people.
John Capes was widely considered to be a liar and an imposter by the time he died in 1985. It wasn’t until 12 years after his death in 1997 that his incredible tale of survival could finally be verified and proven. The wreck of the HMS Perseus was finally discovered at the bottom of the Mediterranean– that year of the coast of Kefalonia and across a series of dives to it, researchers discovered the empty torpedo that Capes had made his bunk in, the escape hatch compartment opened exactly as he had described it and even the bottle of rum that he claimed he had taken a final swig from before leaving. The depth was confirmed to be at 171 feet and the gauges reading 270 feet were indeed broken inside. The wreck of the Perseus was found exactly the way that John Capes had described it which forever vindicated him and his story as the submarines’ sole survivor, it’s simply tragic that he didn’t live long enough to get the recognition he deserved.
Here is a detailed video about this extraordinary story of survival